Although employment discrimination against people with disabilities was outlawed in 1990 through the Americans with Disabilities Act, discrimination in the workplace still exists, for a variety of reasons.
In recognition of this problem, the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) was set up by Congress in 2001 and housed inside the Department of Labor (DOL). Its mission is to promote hiring of the disabled and remove policies that impede this goal.
Enter Wharton. Earlier this year, Wharton management professor Peter Cappelli and five students, as part of a Field Application Project (FAP), set out to research what leads to discrimination against the disabled and what steps are needed to help them succeed in the job market. FAPs at Wharton typically offer a small team of MBA students the opportunity to apply their classroom knowledge and other skills to analyzing a specific problem faced by a host company — in this case, ODEP.
Under Cappelli’s supervision, five students interacted with several staff members from DOL as well as other Wharton faculty to look at the discrimination issue from several different angles. Their findings and recommendations are summarized in a policy brief — available here — written for Wharton’s business economics and public policy department, led by chairman Mark Duggan.
For example, the Wharton team identified three key obstacles to hiring disabled workers. One is negative perceptions — for example, the fear felt by employers that disabled employees will create more work for their supervisors. Another obstacle is lack of external hiring support — the fact that employers will find very few resources on the outside that are available to help recruit the disabled. In addition, job applicants who are disabled “are often reluctant to self-identify as such, for fear that doing so will make bosses … less, rather than more, willing to hire them,” the policy brief states.
The third factor is lack of internal hiring support, which the brief says is often a budgetary problem arising from the fact that funds don’t exist for creating internal expertise in “hiring, accommodating and training people with disabilities.”
The brief also describes three categories of employers — or “market segments” — identified by the Wharton team. The first is discriminator, described as a company that has no program to hire the disabled and has a poor track record of doing so. The second is inclusive: companies that do not actively recruit the disabled but do show a commitment to a diverse workforce and can most likely be encouraged to include disabled people in that commitment.
The third is the choir, companies that are considered not merely tolerant of the disabled, but are advocates for including them in their workforce.
According to Cappelli, one of the most interesting sections of the policy report comes under the heading “Shaping Disabled Workers’ Brand Identity.” Here, the FAP team looked at the fact that — unlike other groupings of people, such as the LGBT community — disabled people have very little brand identity, “perhaps because the category covers such a wide variety of conditions and circumstances.”
In asking the question of how ODEP can “fashion the personnel category ‘disabled people’ into a more successful brand,” the FAP team makes a number of suggestions that correspond to each of the three categories of employers identified above. They also address a variety of related issues, such as negative stereotypes about the disabled, the need to publicize the contributions of successful disabled employees, and the importance of not assuming that because an individual “has a disability, then he or she must have difficulty in areas relevant to job performance as well.”
In addition, the FAP team proposes steps that would help companies — those with a demonstrated interest in hiring disabled people — to identify qualified job candidates. These steps include eliminating the skills mismatch, setting up a centralized website offering information and services related to hiring the disabled, creating a database of disabled people seeking work, and setting up an ODEP help desk to answer questions from employers about resources and laws.
ODEP also met with Judd Kessler, Wharton professor of business economics and public policy, and Wharton marketing professor Deborah Small along with Annenberg professor Dolores Albarracin and visiting management professor Amy Wrzesniewski, for insights into the psychological challenge of “not merely countering employers’ negative impressions of the disabled, but of actively promoting among them more positive feelings.” The policy brief describes a variety of recommendations that came out of these discussions.